From Hong Kong to Online, Wayne Wang Continues to Innovate’

Magnolia recently released Chinese-American director Wayne Wang’s “A Thousand Years of Good Prayers” at Landmark’s E Street Cinema (see review in October issue). A companion piece that played at festivals, “The Princess of Nebraska,” is being released straight to YouTube’s new Screening Room in an online first for a feature-length film, particularly by an established director.

The Washington Diplomat spoke with Wang (“The Joy Luck Club,” “Maid in Manhattan”) at Magnolia’s offices in New York about his latest films, one about a widowed Beijing retiree and his strained relationship with his American transplant daughter (“Thousand Years”) and the other about a pregnant Chinese girl in the United States (“Princess of Nebraska”).

“I found these two short stories by Yiyun Li. They just somehow felt right, very appropriate for today,” Wang explained. “I liked both stories, but I did ‘Thousand Years’ first. After I was editing ‘Thousand Years,’ I kept obsessing about ‘Princess.’ They’re kind of, in a way, companion pieces.

“One is about a woman who’s in her 40s,” the director continued, “who was very much affected by the Cultural Revolution in China, and she’s trying to run away from her past. ‘Princess of Nebraska’ is about a young woman — only 20 — and she grew up in the economic boom of China. She does not have a past because all the past has been destroyed, basically. She’s trying to find something about herself. The two films are very interesting together. They have very different styles, but thematically they’re also linked.”

They’re also a reflection of Wang’s own unique cross-cultural Chinese and American experiences.

Wang was born and raised in Hong Kong, but at 17, he came to the United States to study at the California College of the Arts, gradually adapting to American culture. “The biggest adjustment was probably … how Asians tend to be more polite. You say things more indirectly. You don’t yell at people. In the beginning, I was still very Asian that way, and I had to learn to be more American. Now, I can actually balance the two, which I think is good. For a while, I was overly aggressive. Now, I have choices,” he said.

Wang’s filmmaking roots go back to his childhood in Hong Kong. “My father named me after John Wayne. He was a big movie buff. I grew up watching a lot of movies. It didn’t even matter what it was. The lights go out. The room goes dark. Something goes on. It’s kind of like a journey.

“I’ve always had that fantasy of making a movie,” Wang recalled. “I didn’t quite know how to do it. It seemed so complicated. First, I went to art school and studied visual arts. Slowly, by the time I got to graduate school, I really wanted to make films. They just opened a film department, and I just did it.”

Wang attended the Pacific Film Archive, associated with the University of California at Berkeley, where he saw retrospectives of influential directors such as Satyajit Ray of India, France’s Jean-Luc Godard, Italy’s Michelangelo Antonioni and Sweden’s Ingmar Bergman, as well as Yasujiro Ozu of Japan.

“Ultimately, I think maybe Ozu was the most influential. In his aesthetic and how he made his films, he came closest to how I felt about my aesthetics,” Wang said. “Ozu basically made the same film 40 or 50 times. He was interested in family, family relationships, and how that was being affected by postwar Japan. After I did these Hollywood films, I went back to San Francisco and looked at the Chinese communities, and they were all changing because of new immigrants coming from China. And families are changing.”

Asked how the communities are changing, Wang quipped,” Bad drivers!”

More seriously, he continued, “A lot of the storefronts are being bought over by people from China. The people from China have a certain attitude. Money and trying to be successful is very important to them. The same thing, if you go to China today in the big cities, you find the same kind of attitude.”

To watch “The Princess of Nebraska,” visit

About the Author

Ky N. Nguyen is the film reviewer for The Washington Diplomat.